Giving Voice to Values: A New Approach to Ethics

The “Giving Voice to Values” program grew out of Professor Mary Gentile’s frustration of what was going on in both the financial industry and in higher education. She was frustrated and angry about the poor way that ethics was being taught in universities and applied in real-world scenarios. What developed out of her frustration is now an award-winning ethics program that is being used in many industries, including various types of businesses as well as the military.

So what makes this approach to teaching ethics more impactful? The program is focused on values-driven leadership. In her studies, Professor Gentile recognized that after each corporate scandal that hit the news (e.g., Equifax, Wells Fargo, the recent college entry scandal, etc.), a series of things always happen. First, there are the negative comments about the failure in how they are teaching people ethics in MBA programs. Then it’s the reaction and criticism from alumni that the teaching of ethics and values is not effective within MBA programs. Then the university administration will pull together a task force to brainstorm how to attack the issue. In her experience, there was a lack of real meaning and impact of these task forces. She also noticed that when students were working on ethics case studies, their thinking became more complex and they struggled with the right choice; they started to justify the case studies and the sense of what was right. A common theme in case study evaluations by students was, “I know what the right answer is, but in the real world, that is just not possible.”

The turning point of her values-based program grew from her participation in a Columbia University study that asked all incoming MBA students to tell about a time they were asked to do something in a job that conflicted with their ethics. Interestingly, very few students said they never had that type of situation. In fact, the majority of students had a story to share. Examples included inflating their billable hours, inflation of valuation, exaggerating the enhancements of a new product to maximize sales revenues, corruption, bribes, HR issues, etc. Though it was not really empirical data in the education sense, it was good data to analyze.

In conjunction with her work on the Columbia Study, she discovered the work of another professor related to the simple question of  “What would you do if….?” This was the question that was asked of young individuals by a mentor, parent, teacher, leader, etc., which caused them to verbally voice their position out-loud. The studies showed that individuals that verbally voice their moral position to another went on to do good things, like rescuers in WW II. “If you want to have an impact on people’s behavior, it’s more impactful to have them act that way to be more successful.” the study concluded.

In short, it recognizes that most of us already want to act on our values, but that we also want to feel that we have a reasonable chance of doing so effectively and successfully.

Next comes the science aspect of the discussion. Professor Gentile studied the science of muscle memory and found that if you keep practicing something in the same way, your body will remember the movement. Thus, muscle memory is developed. So why not bring that concept into ethics training. Why can’t a moral muscle memory be created? This is the basis of Giving Voice to Values and the development of ways to voice concerns in a certain way to be more successful. Herein lies the three A’s to building ethical thinking:

  • Awareness-building – Attempts to familiarize you with the challenges you are likely to face in your industry, in your position, in your job. Awareness is important but that’s not the only part of it.
  • Analysis – Familiarize people with the policies, rules and regulations. Then present people case studies to test their analysis of it.
  • Actions – The last piece of the puzzle that helps people react in ethical ways.

When we are faced with a dilemma, humans tend to act emotionally, react unconsciously and then rationalize it afterwards. Professor Gentile wants to rewire that response cycle! The Giving Voice to Values program provides the forum to actually speak up and voice concerns about the moral situation. It focuses on the values-driven leadership process. It focuses on giving a forum to employees to voice concern and attempt to remediate issues before they escalate. A culture change can occur when employees are not just permitted, but encouraged to speak up.

Giving Voice to Values is about asking the questions: ‘Here is the information about what is right, and now knowing what is right, so how do you have an impact in a positive way? What if you are going to act on your values? Does it change the conversation?’

In short, it is about empowering people to speak up and act morally.

Everyone will be faced with a values conflict within their lifetime. How you respond to these situations needs to be based on your moral compass. So speak up!


Need ethics credits or want to learn more about ways to promote ethics within your organization? Register now for our October 17 ComplianceCast, How Organizations Can Promote Ethics.


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